The son of a former Afghan peace council chairman assassinated last fall by a suicide bomber was chosen Saturday as his successor in a renewed push to revitalize efforts to negotiate an end to the decade-long war.
The election of Salahuddin Rabbani came on the same day that the government-appointed peace council held talks in Kabul with a delegation from Hizb-i-Islami, one of three major militant factions that are instrumental to crafting a peaceful end to the conflict as U.S. and other foreign troops leave.
Part of the U.S.-led coalition's exit strategy is to gradually transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 when most international troops will have left or moved into support roles. Another goal is to pull the Taliban and other groups into political discussions with the Afghan government.
The 70-plus members of the Afghan High Peace Council chose Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik and former ambassador to Turkey, to lead the group, according to a statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office. Rabbani is the son of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was killed Sept. 20, 2011, at his Kabul home by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace emissary.
The assassination dealt a major blow to the peace effort, and the election of the younger Rabbani nearly seven months later was a clear signal of the Afghan government's desire to continue efforts to reconcile with the Taliban.
After the elder Rabbani's death, Karzai called on Pakistan, where insurgent leaders are said to be based, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Afghan leader also said peace talks should be led by Afghanistan and that interference from other nations would not be tolerated.
"The peace process can be successful only if Afghans are in the lead," the new peace council chairman said in the statement. "Otherwise, we cannot achieve things, and we cannot gain the trust of the nation."
Members of his council met with a five-member delegation from Hizb-i-Islami and will hold other meetings in coming days with Karzai and his two vice presidents, the president's spokesman Aimal Faizi said Saturday.
"They have come to Kabul with a list of demands, but this is just the beginning of discussions, and we cannot reach a conclusion about the talks at this time," Faizi said.
Hizb-i-Islami is a radical Islamist militia that has thousands of fighters and followers across the north and east. Its leader, powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former Afghan prime minister and one-time U.S. ally who is now listed as a terrorist by Washington. The delegation is led by Hekmatyar's son-in-law, Dr. Ghairat Baheer.
The first official Hizb-i-Islami delegation held talks with the Afghan government in February 2010 and presented a 15-point peace plan, according to the group's European representative, Qaribur Rahman Saeed. Then, in December 2011, at the request of the U.S., a Hizb-i-Islami delegation went to Kabul and met with American, Afghan, NATO and military coalition officials and Karzai, Saeed said.
Ismail Qasemyar, a member of the High Peace Council, said the Hizb-i-Islami delegation was visiting for "serious, formal talk."
"They sound more reasonable than the Taliban," Qasemyar said. "This could be used as a good model for the other factions."
If an accord could be struck with Hizb-i-Islami, it might pressure the other militant groups to negotiate a deal or risk being left out of the government, he said.
The Taliban, the largest of the three militant factions, announced in March that they were suspending talks with the U.S. They accused the U.S. of failing to follow through on its promises, making new demands and falsely claiming that the militant group had entered into multilateral negotiations that included the Kabul government, which they have labeled a puppet of the U.S.
"Putting an end to this war is not going to happen _ not now, not in the near future," said Ghulam Haider, a Taliban operations commander in Kandahar.
"We took some startup measures in lowering our weapons, but the media took it many steps ahead of our doings," he said, adding that negotiating an end to the war was not on the top of the agenda when a large group of top Taliban figures gathered for a meeting in recent weeks. "We never said we were giving up on jihad."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the insurgent group suspended talks with the U.S. because they claimed they had agreed to discuss only two issues with the Americans: The establishment of the militant group's political office in Qatar and the release of five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.
The White House has said that the U.S. continues to support an Afghan-led process toward reconciliation and that U.S. terms for participation in that process by the Taliban have not changed.
Maulvi Kalamuddin, a member of the peace council and a former Taliban official, said the Taliban are waiting for the U.S. to act.
"The information that I have is that there first needs to be a key _ a way of making trust between both sides and for the U.S. to release the five detainees The foreigners need to make the trust because the war was imposed on the Taliban," he said in his Kabul home earlier this week.
Qasemyar, the high peace council's international relations adviser, predicted that if the prisoners were released, the Taliban would resume talks without delay.
A third major faction operating in Afghanistan is run by the notorious Haqqani network, which has conducted lethal attacks against U.S. and NATO troops and is blamed for deadly assaults in the capital.
Qasemyar acknowledged the U.S. is not on good terms with the Haqqani network but said the peace process needs to be "all inclusive."
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.